HOLE-Y COW: THE SMALLPOX TRYPOPHOBIA CONNECTION

Smallpox. A potentially deadly, highly contagious, infectious disease that is caused by the variola virus. The emblematic symptom being the numerous round ulcerated pustules with a center hole referred to as an umbilication.

If you find this repulsive, you’re not alone. Upwards of 15% of the population suffers an aversion to the sight of repeating holes, a condition referred to as trypophobia. Could this loathsome reaction be a genealogical response humans have developed to protect themselves from getting sick?

Enter Edward Jenner, the English physician who administered the first ever smallpox vaccination on this day in 1796.  So how did he do it? While Edward Jenner was still in medical school, he noticed many milkmaids were contracting a disease called cowpox, a much milder form of smallpox. These ladies – who spent their days milking cows – would develop uniform, circular pustules with that telltale center hole on their hands from touching the infected cow udders. The udders also featured the exact same sores. In his research, Jenner also observed that these milk maids and dairy farmers were seemingly immune to the smallpox virus suffering no real symptoms other than the blisters.

On May 14, 1796, in a “Eureka!” moment, Jenner extracted fluid from a cowpox blister and applied it to a scratch on the skin of a young boy named James Phipps to test his theory. A small blister occured on the eight year old and he quickly recovered. Several weeks later Jenner would inoculate the boy again, except this time he would use smallpox instead of cowpox. No disease occured. The experiment was a success and the smallpox vaccine was born.

Doctors all over Europe began immoculating their patients using Jenner’s vaccine. His work was so groundbreaking, Jenner even coined the term “vaccination,” which is derived from the Latin vaccinus, meaning “from the cow.”

Here in America the smallpox vaccination was routinely administered until 1972. It was at that point, the disease was declared eradicated in the United States.

As for the condition of trypophobia and it’s potentiality as an infectious disease detterent: in 2017 two psychologists Tom Kupfer and An Trong Dinh Le published a paper titled “Disgusting Clusters: Trypophobia as an Overgeneralised Disease Avoidance Response” in the journal Cognition and Emotion. 

Their determination? “It is plausible, therefore, that people who were readily able to detect these cues, and were motivated to avoid them, would have been less likely to incur the fitness costs of infectious disease.”

So while a single published paper isn’t the “end all be all,” I can’t help but think there is validity to their argument – that people very well could have developed this aversion to holes in a response to avoiding diseases such as smallpox, measles and others that cause those vile repeating ulcerated sores.

As someone who suffers from a fairly hefty case of trypophobia, I think all you have to do is connect the dots.

SOURCE CITATIONS

Riedel, Stefan. Edward Jenner And The History Of Smallpox And Vaccination. 2005. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1200696/

Kupfer, Tom R. & Le, An T. D. Disgusting Clusters: Trypophobia as an Overgeneralised Disease Avoidance Response. 2018. Cognition and Emotion, 32:4, 729-741, DOI: 10.1080/02699931.2017.1345721

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